Innovations in Healthcare to Combat COVID-19: Telemedicine & Beyond

In times of uncertainty, we rely on our ability to out-think the problem. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different, and it has spurred many creative healthcare innovations. All over the world, governments and people are working together to provide new forms of protection, preventative measures, and tools to fight COVID-19.

As we await the development of a vaccine and effective treatments for this highly contagious disease, scientists have created ancillary technologies, strategies, and equipment to get us through the interim. Additionally, some of these successes may lay the groundwork for further advancements in public health and beyond.

There have been important strides in the realms of robotics, mass temperature screenings, contact tracing, facial coverings, and diagnostics. Whether it’s a disinfecting robot that clears a space of the virus or apps which help trace the spread of the disease, this crisis has brought about new inventions. Read on to discover the innovations in these areas, as well as how you can contribute to this vibrant landscape of ideas.

Innovation in Robotics

Robots and AI have been an emerging technology in the healthcare industry for years now. From simple beginnings in 2000 with an FDA approved surgery bot, the use of robotics has become a mainstay in hospitals and is proving to be useful in the fight against COVID-19.

Examples include:

  • China has developed a robot to perform throat swabs for diagnosing of COVID-19. This robot is made up of a snake-shaped mechanical arm and a binocular endoscope, which is controlled through a human-interaction terminal. The swabs have also achieved a 95 percent one-time success rate since their introduction this February.
  • New Delhi, India has utilized a robot called the Airlens Minus Corona to disinfect large areas. This is done by moving a large robot through an area that sprays ironized water droplets. This innovative design has been certified by the NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) and is being used in places like hospitals, bus stops, shopping malls, and other public spaces.
  • Israel’s Sheba Medical Center has been treating some COVID-19 patients in the hospital with a telemedicine robot. Known as “Vici,” this robot is equipped with a camera, screen, and medical equipment, and can be sent into quarantined rooms under the control of a provider.

Mass Temperature Screenings

Fever is one of the first symptoms of COVID-19, so spotting a fever early with temperature screening can reduce the spread dramatically. Because of this, businesses, governments, and health systems have worked to provide ways of mass temperature screening through thermal scanning and imaging technologies.

Examples Include:

  • China is implementing the widespread use of thermal imaging on AR helmets provided for police and epidemic control units. The infrared cameras attached to the helmets can read temperatures and have facial recognition from up to five meters away (roughly 15 feet). China is also using drones that can spot individuals with fevers in a crowd from more than 100 feet away.
  • Hospitals across the United States have implemented the use of artificial intelligence to help screen people for fever. Tampa General Hospital is using a device created by Care.ai to assess personal health. The camera-embedded device is capable of analyzing facial attributes like sweating and discoloration, as well as thermal scans.
  • Furthermore, some US state governments and employers have implemented the practice of temperature screening at the beginning of a shift. This practice is helping limit the spread of disease and spots out potentially infected people before any spread can happen.

Contact Tracing

Contact tracing enables early identification of those who’ve come into contact with an infected person. This is an arduous and labor-intensive task if done manually. With the arrival of COVID-19, governments are creating ways to perform mass contact tracing to stymie any possible spread. Mobile applications and GPS logs help solve the problem of slow data collection but do pose concerns for one’s privacy. Despite the concerns for privacy, contact tracing and social isolation have proven to be the greatest methods of fighting the spread of COVID-19.

It is worth noting that nations that have implemented proper contact tracing are finding success with containing the virus. Some notable examples being South Korea and Taiwan. South Korea has succeeded in flattening the curve without lockdowns as we see in the Western World thanks to contact tracing.

This does come with risks though. South Korea is recently seeing an increase in LGBTQ discrimination. This is being purported inadvertently through contact tracing information, though the Korean government is looking at ways to prevent this. The benefits of contact tracing are clear, but we must be wary of the damages it can cause.

Examples include:

  • Singapore has created an app named TraceTogether. This app works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other users of the app nearby. When someone with this app is confirmed positive for COVID-19, the app logs are used to determine other people who crossed their path.
  • In a similar vein, MIT and Harvard are using an open-source app called “Private Kit: Safe Paths.” When a person tests positive for COVID-19 anyone with this app will receive a notification that they crossed paths with that person without revealing identity.

Innovation in Face Protection

Healthcare providers should be wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) anytime when dealing with a patient. Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases have overrun many hospitals in the hard-hit areas, and a lack of PPE is a direct result of this. In an effort to support providers though, many groups have worked to make up for this lack of PPE.

Examples Include:

  • 3D-printed face shields are a newcomer to the healthcare industry. Both companies and educational institutions are working tirelessly to provide these in mass to providers. Using 3D printing technology, places like the University of Washington and Amazon are creating a simple headband with a plexiglass shield to protect the face. These forms of PPE are quite useful when compared to traditional masks, as they can be disinfected.
  • N95 masks are not recommended to be reused, but in times of shortages, these methods of disinfection for reuse are showing promise. Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, vaporous hydrogen peroxide, and moist heat are proving to be the most reliable methods to disinfect N95 masks with our limited research. The CDC continues to recommend disposing of these. With many hospitals struggling with PPE shortages though, these methods may prove useful in supporting our providers.
  • While not the traditional sense of the phrase, this plexiglass box is another way to keep our providers safe when treating patients. By Henry Ford Innovation Institute, the plexiglass box adds another layer of protection for providers when intubating patients.

Innovation in Diagnosis

Lab results can take some time and to flatten the curve successfully, we need to have rapid results. Researchers and health institutes are working hard to develop new ways to reach faster diagnosis levels.

Examples Include:

  • A UK-based company called Behold.ai created an AI-based red dot algorithm. This diagnosis method identifies abnormal chest x-rays in COVID-19 patients. The FDA has recently approved the algorithm for safe, commercial use and behold.ai is planning a commercial rollout to the US in the near future.
  • In Australia, DetectED-X has developed an AI diagnosis tool to help educate providers on diagnosing COVID-19. The program offers modules that can be completed within an hour. These provide immediate feedback and performance scores to the provider. The company is offering the tool free of charge and hopes it proves useful for developing nations.
  • Like the other two innovations in this list, China has created national guidelines that recommend CT scans as a key method for diagnosing COVID-19. One notable process is by Ping An Smart Healthcare. It revealed a smart image-reading system that claims it can analyze a CT scan with a 90 percent accuracy rate within 15 seconds.

How Can You Contribute?

The only limit to innovation is your creative mind (and funding). If you have an idea that could help, see what you can do to make it a reality. Even projects as simple as a 3D-printed headband with foam and some plexiglass can save lives.

One great way any NP can contribute is with a hackathon as Subject Matter Experts. You can offer guidance for students and professionals on a myriad of different applications. I recently participated in the NurseHack4Health hackathon sponsored by Microsoft, SONSIEL (Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Leaders), and Johnson & Johnson. It was inspiring, to say the least; I spent 60 hours with over 900 nurses ideating, designing, and pitching new ideas to solve COVID-19 challenges.

Ready to get started? Check out this list of my favorite books on innovation, and join me at a these upcoming events:

  • The Resiliency Challenge – A nine-week hackathon that finds innovative ways to help students, communities, and colleges cope with COVID-19.
  • Beat the Pandemic 2 – MIT is hosting its second hackathon to help beat back the COVID-19 pandemic. MIT’s first Beat the Pandemic hackathon focused on two goals: detecting vulnerable populations and helping health systems. Within 48 hours, MIT had received 199 submissions and from 280 teams. Forty teams with the most promising solutions were chosen and $20,000 was awarded to them.
  • The Interoperability Proving Ground – An open, community platform where you can share and discover new ways to support your community. The IPG platform provides a map and links to hackathons all over the world. This is a great way to find new and innovative ways we can support others during this pandemic.

Melissa DeCapua, DNP

Melissa DeCapua, DNP

Writer
Dr. Melissa DeCapua is a nurse practitioner working at Microsoft on organizational behavior and culture change. She began her career in psychiatry and fine arts, and these skills fuel her passion for user experience (UX): building programs, conducting qualitative research, and designing services. By night, she continues to advocate for nurses through lobbying efforts, blogging, and volunteering. For more about Melissa, check out her website and follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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